Iraqis here marked the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad – and of their liberation from Saddam Hussein's tyranny – in eerie silence and fear. Though April 9 was officially a national holiday, Baghdad's shops were shuttered and its streets deserted because of the emergency curfew declared by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the head of Iraq's government, who in late March attacked the forces of his fellow Shiite, radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, in the southern port of Basra with no warning to either his Cabinet or his American protectors.
As I drove through the capital in an armed convoy of vehicles with blue and red flashing lights, Baghdad was silent except for the Muslim call to prayer that ricocheted from the city's minarets, the sound of mortars or rockets falling somewhere in the distance, and the thumping of American helicopters flying fast and low over the shuttered city.
For a journalist who had not visited Baghdad since the invasion, the scene was devastatingly surreal. Few buildings downtown remain untouched by the war or its far-bloodier aftermath. In the once fashionable Mansour district, the theft of steel rods from the gargantuan Mosque of the Merciful made one of its 75 domes collapse. But the rest of the mosque, which was under construction when the war began, was such a wreck – with debris and chunks of gray concrete scattered throughout the site – that the latest damage was barely noticeable.
Could things get worse? Yes. And they very well might if Washington, in the name of supporting the democratically elected Maliki government, gets our forces further embroiled in a battle among competing Shiite factions.
In addition to Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, the areas hardest hit earlier this month by the fighting between Maliki's government forces and Sadr's militias are the two mainly Shiite parts of Baghdad: Sadr City, a northeastern suburb of well over 2.2 million people known, when I first visited the capital more than two decades ago, as Saddam City in homage to the dictator – and Shula, another stronghold of Sadr's Mahdi Army, where more than a million people live.
Over tea, Raheem Darraji, Sadr City's mayor, told me that the more than 3 million Shiites in the two districts had been suffering from food and medicine shortages since the government imposed a virtual siege on their neighborhoods in early April. People couldn't get to their jobs or buy food; no vehicles could enter or leave the enclaves, not even ambulances; the only way in or out was on foot. A statement by Iraq's parliamentary committee on human rights called the humanitarian crisis "acute."
By the time the government lifted the vehicular ban in Shula about a week ago and followed suit in Sadr City for a few hours shortly afterward, the prices of food, medicine and other necessities had soared. Bread had tripled in price. Many people remained reluctant to leave their homes, fearful of being caught in a crossfire between roving gangs of young Sadr militiamen and the American-backed Iraqi army. On April 11, Iraqi police said American airstrikes had killed 13 people in Sadr City and that street fighting had claimed nearly 90 lives. Sadr City doctors call this a gross underestimate and claim that the Iraqi army or American support fire killed at least 230 people.
Thus, the United States found itself in the unenviable position of supporting an Iraqi government that was firing on the same long-suffering Shiites whom the invasion five years ago was intended to free. American officials say they had little choice but to back Maliki in his potentially catastrophic campaign: Without American support – including logistics, artillery fire and airstrikes from Apache helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles – the Iraqi army most likely would have collapsed in Basra and stalled in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods as well.
But several American officers and veteran students of Iraq made clear that they resented having been dragged into, at best, an ill-conceived, poorly planned confrontation and, at worst, an intra-sectarian, strictly Shiite power struggle that threatens to undermine the ostensible progress achieved by President Bush's troop surge.
A senior Iraqi official said that in demanding that Sadr's forces and all other militias disband and turn over their weapons, Maliki was defending the rule of law and attempting to consolidate respect for the central government's authority. He described the struggle as one more round in a proxy war between the United States and Iran. "It is also an integral part of the strategy of the surge," he told me.
But the prime minister may have grievously erred in attacking Sadr's forces at this time. Maliki's young Shiite rival may be a ruthless thug, but he is also a canny survivor, as previous bloody clashes with coalition forces have unfortunately shown. Emulating another Iranian-backed militant group – Hezbollah in Lebanon – Sadr's Mahdi Army has done more than the government to alleviate Shiite suffering, providing housing, food and other services to Shiite war victims. And he retains a well of sympathy and support among many Shiites throughout Iraq for both his family's valiant struggle against Hussein and his opposition to the U.S. "occupation." Maliki's move risks opening a new round of intra-Shiite warfare in Iraq's already deeply fractured political landscape that he may not be able to win.
In Baghdad, U.S. soldiers and pro-American Iraqis agree that the increased number of American forces since the beginning of the surge has enabled what one might call "community soldiering," after its policing equivalent. American troops are finally numerous enough to have a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood presence, which has emboldened the Sunnis to turn against Al Qaeda and the other violent extremists whom they had tolerated out of fear.
But another key factor in the surge's military success is surely the cease-fire that Sadr declared last September and that he honored until Maliki attacked in Basra.
Iraqis see the attack as an effort by Maliki – and by his ally of convenience, Abdelaziz Hakim, another Shiite leader who heads the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq – to neuter Sadr and his more numerous, better-organized network in advance of provincial elections next October. Sadr, like the Sunnis, sat out the last election contest, an error that neither is likely to repeat.
Along with the Kurds, Iraq's Shiites have always stood to benefit from Hussein's overthrow. But the Shiites,who fought Iran when Hussein invaded a generation ago, recently turned to Tehran to mediate a truce among the different Shiite factions – almost all of which are financed and encouraged by Iran, according to military and intelligence officials – which have been battling it out in Basra.
As we Americans ponder our own election choices this fall, we should ask questions about what I saw in Iraq. Why isn't the Maliki government spending more of its ample resources on the poor neighborhoods whose misery Muqtada Sadr is politically exploiting? Why isn't Maliki doing more to rebuild Iraq and provide essential services? Why hasn't Washington leaned harder on him to crack down on the corruption that is crippling Iraq's recovery and infuriating Sunni and Shiite Iraqis alike, who fail to see much improvement in their daily lives?
And finally, having successfully wooed the tribal-led sahwah – or the Sunni "awakening" councils – into the fight against Al Qaeda and other militants, does it serve America's interests to jeopardize that progress by fueling an internal power struggle among Iraq's Shiites, who constitute 60% of the people?